Hundreds of thousands of families face potential “bill shock” when a moratorium on gas and electricity disconnections is lifted this week, the St Vincent de Paul charity (SVP) has warned.
The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has had a moratorium on disconnections since January. It has been in place for a total of 42 weeks between March of last year and the end of this month, in line with Covid-19 restrictions.
It will be lifted on Tuesday, which the commission says is “vital” to allow customers to engage with suppliers and address arrears that may have built up.
According to the commission, there were 240,006 domestic electricity customers in arrears in February, along with 112,833 gas customers. This is an increase of some 20,000 on the total in February 2020, before the pandemic hit Ireland.
Dr Tricia Keilthy, SVP's head of social justice, said the Government should set up a Covid-19 utility debt fund to help people significantly in arrears.
“They need to be proactive to prevent disconnection because reconnection fees are so expensive. We are concerned about a lack of coordination and joined-up thinking around impacts it is going to have in terms of Government supports around utility debt.”
Dr Keilthy said “bill shock” will be coming for a lot of households because meters have not been read during the pandemic, people have been spending more time at home and many have been living on reduced incomes.
Prior to the pandemic, SVP estimated that 220,000 people were living in energy poverty, and its own research states that 25 per cent of people have cut back on food and utility spending. Some 15 per cent are behind on their bills.
She said some utility providers have already been making provision for more vulnerable customers, with Electric Ireland providing a €100 credit to people in need and extending its moratorium until the end of July.
“We expect the gas side of things to be where the most difficulties arise because of the cost of heating over the last while,” Dr Keilthy said.
She encouraged people to contact and engage with heir supplier on the matter “as they won’t cut you off if you are making some attempt at payment”.